Master of Disaster, John Hiatt’s brilliant new CD, simultaneously celebrates and updates rock ‘n’ roll in a manner that won’t be particularly surprising to any child of the ‘50s. Hiatt journeyed to Memphis for this recording, joining forces with the venerable producer and impresario Jim Dickinson and his sons Cody and Luther, who comprise two thirds of the radical roots-blues/rockers the North Mississippi Allstars. Veteran Muscle Shoals session man extraordinaire David Hood handles the bass. “I see this almost like a Fathers and Sons type of project, similar to what those guys did in Chicago with the Chess legends and the young rockers,” Hiatt said while discussing the album. “Jim’s sons Luther and Cody brought in that youthful assertiveness, that rocking feeling, and Jim and I were the old guys, just grabbing hold to the grooves they were laying down and doing something else with them.”
Hiatt is equally thrilled about working with Dickinson, a legendary figure known for the same type of eccentricity that has epitomized other producer/savant types like Phil Spector but minus their self-destructive behavior in the studio. “Jim Dickinson is a musical shaman,” Hiatt gushed. “He not only understands and knows music, he knows and understands the people who make it. It was kind of freaky sometimes, because he would seem to know what we were thinking musically before we played it, then he’d articulate it in a way that made more sense than how we envisioned it.”
Of course, those of us who grew up understanding there was no difference (that mattered) in the music of Elvis, Ray Charles, Slim Harpo and Johnny Cash knew immediately upon hearing John Hiatt’s first numbers 31 years ago that he was a kindred spirit. That’s not to say only the rock and roll generation can appreciate Hiatt’s cleverness, idiomatic versatility, distinctive gruff and endearing voice, or slashing guitar skills. But when everyone from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell and Willie Nelson to Buddy Guy, Flaco Jimenez and Ry Cooder have covered his tunes, it’s quite clear that those who appreciate great songwriting and savor a keen wit, narrative flair and refusal to pen a sloppy or sappy line, eagerly embrace John Hiatt’s tunes.
A garage band veteran while growing up in Indiana, Hiatt also found inspiration in the groundbreaking songs of Bob Dylan, another figure with an encyclopedic knowledge of and love for vintage American music, plus the ability to communicate sentiments and feelings many Americans either feared or pretended didn’t exist. When he arrived in Nashville as an 18-year-old, it was clear to anyone who listened closely that he not only had a lot to say, but was presenting it in a manner that brilliantly blended passion and sophistication. Early covers of his work by the Neville Brothers, Ronnie Milsap, Bonnie Raitt and many others began alerting music lovers to his compositional flair.
Then Hiatt began gaining equal notoriety as a performer, particularly a stint where he served as America’s answer to the angry Brits of the late ‘70s, plus some time working with Ry Cooder. The evidence of his evolution into a formidable artist also became more apparent in his live shows. Soon such seminal releases as Bring The Family in 1987, Slow Turning in 1988, Stolen Moments in 1990, and Walk On in 1995 were the signal that he had become a distinctive and dynamic star. Hiatt’s greatness couldn’t be denied, and he subsequently made three more astonishing releases as the 21st century began: Crossing Muddy Waters in 2000 reaffirmed his songwriting chops (as if that was necessary), The Tiki Bar Is Open showcased the rock ‘n’ roll roots and Beneath This Gruff Exterior revealed an artist still capable of surprising, shocking and delighting his audience.
But with Master Of Disaster John Hiatt shows he still has plenty of compositional and vocal might. Two of the disc’s 11 cuts that really reaffirm the strength of the Hiatt/Dickinson/North Mississippi Allstars musical union are “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It” and “Ain’t Ever Goin’ Back.” The former contains some edgy, inventive lyrics revolving around disillusionment and hypocrisy, but only Hiatt would fuel the song by using a dispute between Jesus Christ, the apostles and Mary Magdalene to launch things. The latter has a loping country feel, anchored by a gritty Hiatt lead vocal and acoustic/electric counterpoint in the arrangement that makes the song’s expressions of loss and regret sound even more brooding and intense.
“I was trying to cover the great American musical experience with the songs on this album,” Hiatt continued, his words offering the perfect overview. “We were influenced by the blues, by country music, by ragtime, jazz, everything. But we were also reflecting the sense of the frontier, the whole Southern experience of different cultures and sounds bumping up against the Mississippi River.” From the rumbling horn lines that come flowing in and out on “Master Of Disaster” to the naughty sensibility and careening feel right out of Chuck Berry that underlines “When My Love Crosses Over,” Hiatt simultaneously highlights rock’s past and updates it for 21st century audiences. The laconic sound, biting harmonica and poignant singing on “Wintertime Blues” hearkens back to the folkie period during the early ‘60s, when acoustic troubadours and venerable, forgotten country blues players shared stages, and giants like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House were “rediscovered.” Yet Hiatt avoids any retro feel in his treatment, his voice resonant, confident and pushing forward, even as the song’s last chorus reminds you of the pain reflected in its message.
“I wanted a little different flavor, a different vibe with this recording,” Hiatt responds when asked why he chose at this juncture to head down to Memphis. “We got a real funky quality working at Ardent. Cutting in the same room where they made ZZ Top, recording in the R&B room, you could really feel the whole soul, the blues sensibility in the place. The session had a great old school feeling, yet it was also the most incredible, honest sound quality and reproduction that I’ve ever heard doing a recording.” That soul can also be heard in “Find You At Last,” where the backing horn section sometimes gets that swaying backbeat and feel in the choruses and transitions like Hi Rhythm did behind Rev. Al Green and Ann Peebles and everyone else at Willie Mitchell’s great old studio on Lauderdale street during the ‘70s.
But what makes everything work is that Hiatt naturally fits into every setting, smartly embellishing grooves one time and soaring over floating progressions the next. He’s just as compelling and convincing recognizing an old-timer’s heartbreak in “Old School” as he was enticing and suggestive on “When My Love Crosses Over,” with both songs ultimately illuminating the sexual games and maneuvers too often at the heart of most relationships. His poignant, reflective yet confident lead vocal punctuates “Old School,” making it a moving and memorable look at disappointment and disillusionment. “Back On The Corner” also addresses loss and suffering, but this time works in the impact of addiction as well. It’s a fitting conclusion to a magnificent work, one that depicts an American music giant still refining his compositions and forging ahead.
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